Xavier Le Roy and Scarlet Yu’s, Temporary Title 2015: A Short Reflection

2015-11-19 15.05.59On Thursday 19th November I attended an open rehearsal at Carriageworks in Sydney, showcasing Xavier Le Roy and Scarlet Yu’s, Temporary Title 2015. As part of Kaldor Public Art Projects 31, participants were invited to watch some of the rehearsal process and reflect on their experiences. This is my reflection…

Temporary Title 2015: Human and Animal.

In his philosophical work, The Open: Man and Animal (2004) Giorgio Agamben describes an image from a 13th Century Hebrew Bible: ‘In the centre are the seven heavens, the moon, the sun, and the stars, and in the corners, standing out from the blue background, are the four eschatological animals: the cock, the eagle, the ox, and the lion’ (Agamben 2004, 1). He continues, ‘The last page (136r) is divided into halves. The upper half represents the three primeval animals: the bird Ziz (in the form of a winged griffin), the ox Behemoth, and the great fish Leviathan, immersed in the sea and coiled upon itself’ (Agamben 2004, 1). The image is taken from a miniature titled, ‘The Feast of the Righteous’; it shows a group of not- quite- human or not- quite-animal figures standing at a long table laden with food. Agamben seems to suggest that the feast of the righteous performatively realises the beginning of the end of human history, perhaps the uncoiling of the fleshy temporality suggested in the primeval body of the fishy Leviathan. Of course the Leviathan image remerges in Hobbes as the symbol of an incorporated humanity, or rather an entity that absorbs the bodies of the many and constitutes them into one, massive, political body.

The ‘conclusion of human history’ is depicted as a grand banquet where half human half animal figures feast on the meat of the Leviathan and Behemoth. By consuming these symbolic meats, the figures are liberated from structures of human embodiment, space and time. Here, Agamben returns to a motif of the in-human/non-human; an expression of ‘life’ outside the bounds of human history, speech and law. It is a motif I projected onto the dramaturgy of Xavier Le Roy and Scarlet Yu’s latest collaboration in Sydney, Temporary Title 2015.

…beneath the crowns, the miniaturist has represented the righteous not with human faces, but with unmistakably animal heads…Why are representatives of concluded humanity depicted with animal heads? (Agamben 2004, 2)

Temporary Title: The Emergence of the “human” through acts of speech .

In the middle of the room was a mound of bodies. It was difficult to discern one limb from another. The mound of bodies resembled a tangle of snakes or spit fires coiled together. Limbs writhed and torsos strained. The image was also a beginning of life image, molecular or cell-like. There was a sense of the internal structure of the body, the lining of a stomach or foetal collection of cells multiplying and gathering. The mound slowly split in two separate parts, a cell dividing at the beginning of ‘life’.

A body then breaks away from the amorphous and sightless mound; a moment of individuation as a person emerges from the fleshy coil. They crawl, their posture is cat -like and they sit with a thump next to two public participants behind me. The individuated body speaks, she asks, ‘May I ask you a question?’ The women are a bit surprised, they answer ‘Yes’. ‘How do you feel about ageing?’ My attention oscillates, moving in and out of this conversation and toward the dispersing bodies in the centre. The conversation behind me has the sense of being both curated, performed, yet is also natural or pedestrian, an accounting of quotidian concerns. Another woman to the left of me is asked the same question, ‘how do you feel about ageing?’ she answers that she’d recently had a baby and that her body had changed. ‘I used to be a performer too but I stopped performing after I had a baby. My body has changed…’ I continue to watch the other naked bodies. The nudity is important it seems, as it suggests some originary state. They are naked and we are clothed; this stops feeling like an imbalance of power and begins to open up another sensation, another vista or horizon. The summer light pouring in through the windows and high concrete walls with the soft, dampening, acoustics of carpet gives an impression of nudity as endless horizon. I feel my awareness stretching beyond the immediate scene.

The bodies are animal like and prowl around the space. More of the performers break away from the sightless group (sightless because their eyes were barely open in the opening choreographic sequence). The other performers asked questions too, different ones. A cacophony of questions and general speech reaches critical mass. The noise and conversation overwhelms the initial choreography. Le Roy later describes this movement as the oscillation between subjectivity and objectivity.

Arriving at speech determines the human, we are told. What is it to speak? It determines the condition through which we might appear as human to the other, but why and might this change? Where speech is censured, buried, disappeared or not recognised, there is a devaluing of the human. Speech is a political event just as it determines our place in the amorphous and yet intimately calculable mass called society. Speech is like a form of ‘drag’; it clothes and disguises the body as “human”. At least, this is how I read the choreography…

I was deep in conversation with a performer, Michael, when I noticed the choreography had changed again. The bodies were dropping to the ground more frequently, like lions after a strenuous kill. They panted and dropped. Some of the animals began to decompose, their legs and arms folding in like a machine running down, perhaps signalling the end of the body and the end of time. My thoughts inevitably turn to the philosophical and political treatises of the 20th century. Here I am thinking of Hannah Arendt’s thesis on the human condition, with its spaces of appearance and fetish for the world forming activities of speech and action. My thoughts turn to Foucault’s appraisal of Greek tragedy and acts of speech, such as parrhésia; parrhésia is a compromised kind of speech – risky, liable and not necessarily “free speech” – but nonetheless affective and charged. Temporary Title offers an opportunity for a close reading of choreography and dramaturgy, which I feel speaks to the philosophical appraisal of what it is to emerge as “human” and why this emergence is understood to coincide with a speaking subjectivity.

I return to the exhibition today…

A version of this reflection also appears on the Kaldor Public Art Projects blog.

Sandra D’Urso

Marking time with Marina Abramović in Sydney, Australia (2015).

Marinaface facilitators marinapromo

In July 2015 I participated in three-days of training in the Abramović Method, which was led by Marina’s artistic collaborator Lynsey Peisinger. The Abramović Method is comprised of a series of meditation-like exercises intended for the curriculum at the Marina Abramović Institute (MAI). The three day training resulted in a 2 week durational performance and artist residency called Marina Abramović: In Residence (2015) situated on the wharf not far from scenic and iconic Circular Quay in Sydney. Over the course of the three days we were asked to slow-walk for lengthy and sustained periods, covering just a few metres of ground each time. We were asked to separate and count mounds of rice and lentils. Other exercises included sitting still and staring at a block of colour on the wall or alternatively sitting opposite another person and gazing into their eyes without moving or blinking.  We were asked to limit our talking and to restrict our eating during the day. The three day training in the Abramović Method was to equip us with the skills to undertake two weeks of facilitation for the In Residence project on the wharf. This project has already travelled to London, Sao Paulo in Brazil, Sydney and there are plans for it to travel to China and Iceland.

The Sydney iteration of Marina Abramović: In Residence was hosted by John Kaldor – long-time philanthropist of the arts – and follows on from the internationally acclaimed 13 Rooms (2013), which also featured a delegated performance work conceived by Abramović. In Residence was comprised of two projects; one was a residency where 12 artists were asked to live on site at the pier developing their ideas whilst engaging in the Abramović Method. The artists lived and slept in cubes or cells, as Marina referred to them, lightly furnished with a bed and lamp. The second part of In Residence was the participatory event in which 52 facilitators – of which I was one –  would help silently move and encourage the public to engage in the activities that define the Method; the slow-walk, energy-platforms; mutual gazing, colour gazing and sleeping in beds. Over the course of the 2 weeks the 52 facilitators had silently held the hands of around 40,000 members of the public; walked with them, gazed into their eyes, tucked them into beds and stood with them hand-in hand on ‘energy platforms’.

Photo courtesy of Sandy Edwards


In hindsight, the labour intensive nature of the work seems central to the aesthetic operation of the project and raises some interesting questions about the relation of art to labour and categories of human action; Is this work or is it art, is it art-work or work as art? Can it be all of these? Some other questions include: What are the aesthetic and institutional apparatuses that drive such a project? What might emerge from a study that tracks the influence of the Abramović Method on performance aesthetics in a trans-national context, whilst also being particularly attuned to the Australian and Asia-pacific context?

The reception of In Residence was largely positive with participants reporting that they felt ‘transformed’, ‘elated’ or ‘lost for words’. In conversation, one young man said to me that he’d forgotten what it was like to be tucked into bed and how incredibly moving it was. Another expressed that they attended In Residence on the strength of Lady Gaga’s endorsement of Marina.  They were curious about the exhibition and weren’t expecting the level of care and intimacy experienced in performing these simple exercises with the facilitators. Others were astounded that they’d spent so much time in the exhibition, reporting they intended to stay for an hour but had become so immersed that they stayed for 3 or 4 hours.

The participants were expected to leave behind any electronic devices that could show the time including watches and mobile phones. The disorientation produced by not knowing the time was a common thread in the reporting of experiences by the public. Other experiences were slightly more traumatic. One person was reminded of the day her mother was first institutionalised in an asylum because of the strangeness of people slow walking and lying motionless in beds. A Brazilian woman was confronted when she saw the rows of people willingly separating rice and lentils. This had the unwitting effect of transporting her to childhood memories of an unkind family cook who would force her and her brother to sort lentils as punishment.  Others admitted that they felt haunted by the spectres of forced labour camps. These stories, memories and affecting recollections would emerge and circulate during the two weeks of the exhibition as people documented their thoughts and shared their feelings with the facilitators.

Perhaps the most intimate of all the exercises included carefully tucking strangers into bed. There were around 50 camper beds arranged in rows creating a paradoxical scene of somnambulist industry as facilitator’s stewarded people in and out of the covers. I asked myself, who would come to an art event and sleep?  Many did and so did I in the end. Some of the strangers mouthed a quiet or teary ‘thank-you’ as I tucked the covers around the contours of arms and legs, others laughed hysterically finding it infantilizing and others still cried uncontrollably as the intimacy of the act was too much to bear.

Photo courtesy of Sandy Edwards

Over the course of the two weeks around 40,000 people moved through the exhibition, repeating the same actions, marking time across the draughty and uneven floor of the wharf. Some were deeply moved by the exercises, or otherwise disturbed and responded by crying, shaking, slapping their legs or worse still, fainting. Some resisted by wilfully straying from what they felt was coercion to behave in a certain way or enacted creative flourishes and interpretations of the exercises. Some participants resisted the space by running, gesturing wildly, handing out pamphlets warning the perils of conformity, or otherwise making “irreverent” gestures; often intending to break the ambient temporality of the wharf, or alternatively disturbing the mood unintentionally by other means.

As well as the human players it also seemed that the draughty walls of the old wharf performed with timely streams of sunlight, gusts of wind and olfactory assaults by ushering in smells of ocean bound sewerage. Most of the public dutifully performed the tasks and some were overcome with desperation, hoping to get a glimpse of Marina. They betrayed their intentions through distracted side-ways glances and furtive movements toward the ‘presence of the artist’. Repeatedly performing the tasks over two-weeks began to have a strange effect on my sense of time and body in space, creating a proprioceptive warp that was both disturbing and seductive.

Photo courtesy of Sandy Edwards

I would intermittently think to myself, ‘what am I doing here? What is the meaning and economy of this very strange labour, at once intimate, compelling, and yet splintering and divisive? Who is this stranger and how odd to stare so attentively into their face, their eyes, without ill consequence. A sense of the uncanny crept in, a kind of unnerving double play on my part of being In Residence – suggestive of the ‘oikos’ as the Greeks called it, or the economy of ‘keeping house’ – but also away from home. I live in Melbourne with my three school aged children and travelled to Sydney to be a facilitator in this project. So much of my work at home is gendered domestic labour and what a strange predicament that I should be paid to be repeating these tasks as an act of art; repeating the same making of beds, same caressing of faces and holding of hands ordinarily reserved for the private spaces and people of home. I felt moments of rapture In Residence and the transformative potential of being there. I felt lost, moved and at times bodiless. I also felt the claustrophobic pall of re-performing the banal and libidinal labours of ‘oikos’ or the home; the miring and discipline of the body required in the act of being Resident for nobody in particular and everybody specifically.

As I slow walked or gazed away the hours and days beside the bodies of strangers and fellow facilitator’s I began to succumb to an idea that the bodies moving slowly around me formed a kind of Leviathan– a finely balanced assemblage of muscles, delicate gestures and quiet intentions. Managing the fragile yet well- hedged ecology of this massive art work proved increasingly difficult as exhaustion set-in and as the numbers of participants grew towards the end of the exhibition. Yet In Residence was by many accounts successful and the after-image of the wharf and its temporary ‘oikos’ of strangers doing strange things remains as a kind of inspiration.

Sandra D’Urso

A review of two MKA plays for the Neon Festival of Independent Theatre in Melbourne 2015.

4506MKA Theatre of New Writing

MKA is a Melbourne based theatre company that formed in 2010 with the objective of promoting new Australian writing for the theatre. Recently, the company staged a double feature including Tobias Maderson-Galvin’s Lucky and Morgan Rose’s Lord Willing and the Creek Don’t Rise. Both plays were part of a season of independent Australian theatre for this year’s Neon festival. In a promotional video for Neon, the MKA team describe the company as providing an independent ‘forum for new ideas’, which is not bound by ‘corporate dollars’ or market considerations and therefore fills the gap in a largely corporate theatre industry. Companies such as Robert Reid and Anniene Tristen Stockton’s Theatre in Decay, which formed in 2000, had similar objectives and share in the Melbourne branded, post-punk larrikin aesthetic, which flourished in the self-deprecating and “self-harming” garage- grunge sensibility of the late 1990s.

If there is a genealogy to be drawn here, MKA appear to take up the mantle of Goth, garage inspired theatre – where Theatre in Decay left off about a decade ago. According to Tobias Maderson-Galvin, MKAs playwriting aesthetic merges ‘Delicatessen’ with ‘True Detective’. Like these filmic and TV references, MKA’s dramas take cheeky delight exposing serious human failings and institutional aporias. With a playful, and taxonomic fascination with death, the play texts sidle up to forms of structural human violence, colonialism, gender-based violence, cannibalism and environmental destruction.

In the context of a festival such as Neon, which takes place in Southbank theatre – a venue reserved for more established, read conventional, theatre – pushing the boundaries, even just a little bit, becomes all the more titillating and self-reflexive in a time of arts funding precarity and restructuring. The recent restructuring of the funding body of the Australia Council ushers in the newly established National Centre for Excellence in the Arts, overseen by Senator of the Arts George Brandis, who admits a keen interest in the arts’ role in celebrating Centenary, in ballet, block-buster musicals and art exhibitions. His objective is to promote excellence in the Arts by assessing whether or not an artwork adequately maps to community standards of good taste. With theatre companies such as MKA providing the kind of post-punk larrikin aesthetics that cut across the grain of what might be considered community standards in good taste, it is timely to consider the value of such work in a rapidly shifting landscape for the arts and humanities in Australia. More broadly, how does independent theatre practice reflect broader issues of censorship in public reportage and opinions that fall outside of the presumed parameters that ‘good taste’ and community standards allow?

What I hope to emphasise here is that ‘excellence’ is not an innocent aesthetic judgement about what constitutes good taste, but rather becomes an invested, political strategy. The setting of theatrical quality against an unverifiable community standard of good taste is deceptive, for example any modulations of opinion are flattened and made to align directly with a conservative account of the arts; no obscenity, nudity but not too crude, not too left wing or feminist etc; and on the other hand the arbiters of good taste may also be well versed in high-brow literature, European modernism, – or at a pinch, Italian – avant-gardism, in such a way as to give the impression of advocacy for difference in theatre. What can a conservative take on excellence do to Australian playwriting and theatrical production? ‘Excellence’ has determined the landscape and legacy for Australian playwriting, one that is still deeply suspicious of women, indigenous people and the working- poor, students, ‘leaners’ who speak out of turn. If you follow closely, there is an implicit parsing of ‘excellence’ as suspicious of ‘new Australian writing’ for theatre, particularly women playwrights.

Suffice to say here, that the landscape of Australian theatre and new writing for the theatre will probably shift again reflecting the restructuring of arts funding, from the old Australia Council to Brandis’ new National Centre for Excellence in the Arts. The Australia Council has its critics, however its principle of employing an ‘arms length’ approach to arts access and uptake, which made some provisions for independent work, is a grave concern for small, independent arts organisations with little popular or mass appeal. Excellence and good taste can be frightening affirmations and imperatives particularly when the art work is not affirmative or popular in the political sense, but a little dark, ‘obscene’, critical in ways that align with dissensus.

Tobias Maderson-Galvin’s Lucky.

Lucky resurrects a set of three familiar colonial types – an indigenous man, a cut-purse/prostitute and Irish priest – and places the characters aboard a boat, which looks as though it has been cleaved in half. Conflict between the three colonial figures ensues as ‘the Aboriginal’,’ the Woman’, ‘the Priest’, attempt to orient the ocean and compete for survival. The action on the boat appears to be symbolic of the fracture caused by colonial violence and presents a wry revisiting of the Australian nation- play. Colonial time is intermittently broken by a series of contemporised monologues given by a shy boy bullied at school, a piano mover, and a school principle opening a reconciliation garden at her school, played by the same three actors. The monologues spiral into moments of psychological rupture, intruding on the flimsy render of the ordinary lives explored in the text. Beneath the surface of civilised life with mums and dads and schools with reconciliation gardens and the winning of The America’s Cup, lies a murky legacy of the birth of a nation delivered in a spray of bullets.

The play opens with an Indigenous man donning the red coat of the invading British Infantry. He addresses the audience as a Master of Ceremonies, asking us if we are ‘feeling lucky’? The phrase ‘lucky country’ is a well-worn motif signalling prosperity, lack of class barriers, and general possibilities offered by a newly established nation, particularly alluring for overseas citizens escaping post-war Europe. The writer’s of Lucky have referenced the 1964 book by Donald Horne, The Lucky Country.

The term ‘Lucky Country’ was cynically employed soon afterwards for the attraction of cheap migrant labour. Its purpose was to attract European men and women with a capacity to assimilate to the cultural standards of a ‘White Australia’. I remember hearing the term often in primary school during the Hawke and Keating years. In the classroom, the term seemed synonymous with migration, with an emphasis on the positive outcomes of mobility, the promise of economic success for those willing to join the ‘melting-pot’ of Australian society. The unspoken caveat being that migrants adapt to the sensibilities required of a white, ‘civilised’ Australia. The play evokes the concept of the Lucky with a cynical glance toward its audience, but also with a sense of delight, as Luck belongs to the realm of the irrational, of chance, of ‘magic’, to the under dogs. There is no offer of resolution in the play, as the three colonial figures suffer their internment at sea. The watery home is unhomely, un-heimlich, set against an infinitely deferring horizon; the play signalling that the lawless are never landed.

The writers and stage design evoke a timeless, antipodean, purgatory; one that extends from the rule of the British into the economic opulence of the era of The America’s Cup, through to the Howardian time of the un-sorry. The symbolism in the three characters suggests a sublimated Christian cosmology, connecting to the legacy of European law and penal governance, casting out the tripartite Others along with their ‘future selves’; the Aboriginals, stolen kids, Women, wives, school teachers, and prostitutes and Catholic Irish, wogs and other uncivilised, religious types.

Lost at sea the others figure as ungovernable ghosts and in light of shifting tides in maritime law, which have given rise to military interventions such as ‘Operation Sovereign Borders’, the symbolism of a cleaved boat that may never arrive, takes on a particularly uncanny or terrible countenance. The dramaturgy suggests that the colonial types, each referencing an exile from their respective homes, are pressed onto the ‘same boat’ in a moment of duress. In this way the play is suggestive of an ongoing condition of un-landed dispossession, but for whom?

My question to MKA would be, do we inhabit the same boat really? Perhaps the symbolism of the cleaved boat answers this question in which the disproportionate, generational, historical inequalities imparted onto First Nation Australians suggests we are not in the same boat. On the one hand, the spatial metaphor of the cleaved boat makes sense, as it signals two different sets of governing apparatuses; one for the ‘white’s’ and another for the ‘blacks’; a dreaded and unspeakable Apartheid. The staging has the Irish priest and cut-purse prostitute on one side of the cleaved boat and the Indigenous man on the other. The symbolism is productive but its execution is perhaps a little naïve.

Morgan Rose’s Lord Willing and the Creek Don’t Rise

Set in New Orleans, Morgan Rose’s Lord Willing follows the lives of an unemployed couple and their elderly neighbour in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina. An extraordinary feature of Lord Willing is how well it maps to the Australian vernacular and idiom. I immediately leaped to the recent controversy surrounding the airing of Australian documentary series ‘Struggle Street’, which chronicles the lives of the working poor and unemployed in the Sydney suburb of Mt Druitt. The documentary was criticised for its perspective, which seemed to veer down on the town, taking voyeuristic pleasure at the level of dysfunction and economic inequality revealed in the show. Others felt Australia’s white middle-class was threatened by the realities of generational and institutional poverty and how it forces ‘us’ to feel complicit. The hidden subtext perhaps, of both the Mt Druitt TV series and Lord Willing, is that there is something alarming, difficult and seductive in witnessing the abject dysfunction of our neighbours.

Although there has been much commentary regarding the very apparent ways in which race contributed to the unequal distribution of aid from the Bush administration in the aftermath of Katrina, the play only implies it through its casting; there are no black characters in Lord Willing. What does a focus on white dispossession in states of crisis illustrate? Is this a self-reflexive looking, or perpetuation of voyeuristic gazing? I’m not sure, but if it is a voyeuristic gazing it seems to want to make us feel complicit. The character of Miss Rose for example, emaciated and sipping from a flask states at the beginning of the play, ‘We’re drunks and racists’.

Lord Willing reflects on the ambience produced by structural abandonment, the inability and neglect of governing bodies to intervene and restore ruined infrastructure, it describes the creeping in of dirty water and disease, a flooding in of excrement, limbs, dead animals and debris in the manner of Gothic encounter. These images of watery decay and neglect inform the geography and environment of the play and insinuate the workings of the characters’ inner landscapes. On the one hand the play is very much located in New Orleans, on the other hand it could be situated in any state of emergency setting. The nature of the emergency is itself fluid and ambiguous; it’s environmental in scale, but it’s also governmental, personal, emotional, sexual, and ultimately psychological.

The play doesn’t give the impression of being ideological, or overtly political, but it points to an ‘abandonment’ of human life as an effect of unequal distributions in the economy, structural complacency, the savagery of environment that strikes with flood, heat, fire, as well as the savagery of gender relations. The narrative ends with the implied suicide of a man who has eaten his girlfriend; a ghastly and literal act of incorporation of the Other. The structural abandonment of the flood- struck town resolves itself on the level of the personal and psychological as an abandonment of faculty, such that a “loved” one is cannibalised, incorporated, finished.

In the post-show discussion, Ken Gelder – from the Australian Centre at the University of Melbourne – was invited to share his thoughts on Australian Gothic. He talked about the Gothic as an encounter between different genres or categories, a zone of collision or perhaps indistinction; in the case of these two new Australian plays, the collisions between colonial and contemporary temporalities, the bodies of the young and those of the elderly, sex and death, humour and terror, city and swamp, Indigenous and non-indigenous. The Gothic evokes a feeling of ‘the uncanny’ in the Freudian sense. Freud’s theory of a child’s connection to the mother and one’s connection to the home, or in this case, the un-homely – ‘un-heimlich’ – is to do with things we are familiar with and recognise, but which at the same time manifest as alien or foreign. The un-homely or uncanny is another way of describing the water-bound aesthetics of this new Australia work, which carries forward the legacy of Theatre In Decay which shocked and irritated Melbourne audiences in the early 2000s with a similar approach to script, rough vernacular, a sense of the obscene and post-punk larrikinism. I think that the MKA plays would benefit from a period of finessing in the script, to bring greater depth to characterisation and breadth to the scenes of structural violence it explores. However, I thoroughly enjoy and revel in the rough and ready, sublimely feral approach to the script writing. There’s something deeply satisfying in the creep of this Melbourne-branded post-punk theatrical larrikinism into a mainstream venue.

Sandra D’Urso

Teaching and Learning Australia: re-thinking the archives in the Australian Humanities

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On 10 April 2015, the Australian Centre hosted a one-day symposium about education and archives in the Australian Humanities. There were 22 speakers in attendance, each addressing different aspects of working with and in the archive. A key objective of the symposium was to investigate how bodies of knowledge are managed, accessed, and translated for education, and also how archives perform more broadly in the production of cultural, literary, virtual, performative and artistic works. As the title suggests, there were two main and interconnected threads of enquiry. The first related to approaches in teaching and education in the humanities, assessing what the humanities look like in contemporary Australia, and how this landscape might shift in the future.

The second thread involved an investigation of the role and concept of the archive itself, including tracing how archival research forms dominant cultural histories and narratives, and taking up issues of authority and access. During the course of the day a picture about archives and their role for education in the Australian humanities began to emerge. The redressing of lost or hidden histories in the form of cultural experiences and identities, urban landscapes, historical events, and popular ephemera, was prominent.

The symposium’s objective of re-imagining the archive for education included offerings by Ilbijerri Theatre Company’s Kamarra Bell-Wykes, who evoked the idea of theatre as a ‘living archival document’. Kamarra described Ilbijerri’s production of BEAUTIFUL ONE DAY as ‘an immersive history lesson’ communicating what it was like ‘living under the act’ in Palm Island and how the legacy of colonial rule continues to resonate well into the 21st Century. Kimberley Moulton from Bunjilaka Aboriginal Cultural Centre, Melbourne Museum, spoke about the aesthetic space of the Birrarung Gallery, which also houses a number of significant Aboriginal artefacts dating back to 1826. Kimberly spoke about the consultative and affective processes promoted by the gallery, outlining the methods used by Koorie artists actively engaging the artefacts in creating their own art works. Kimberly gave an impression of the gallery space as an embodied and contemporary site; interested in the specific and deliberate encounters to be had between Aboriginal artefacts and the public.

Heidi Norman presented a case study of the New South Wales Annual Aboriginal Rugby League Knockout Carnival focusing on the challenges, unexpected insights, and delights provided by a community-generated archive. Heidi demonstrated how the ad-hoc nature of managing unofficial documentation, its ethical, financial, as well as administrative aspects, yielded an important insight for the scoping of ‘Aboriginal social and political life’ in N.S.W. Heidi’s gathering of these materials, including candid community photographs of the Rugby League Knockout participants, maps the points of intersection between popular sport, politics and ‘the effects of rule’ on Indigenous communities.

Lyndall Ley Osborne outlined the significance of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (A.I.T.S.I.S) for the teaching of Indigenous knowledge in schools, but also for key cultural institutions and artistic groups, including Bangarra Dance Theatre. Lyndall gave an overview of the breadth and depth of cultural materials that comprise the archive, stating that assessments conducted on the significance of AIATSIS revealed that it is the ‘most extensive and best contextualised collection of Indigenous Australia in the world’.

Melissa Bellanta’s extensive archival work contributed to her social and cultural analysis of the figure of the ‘larrikin’. She found a predominance of the use of the term in narratives of turn-of-the-century police and court reports held in the Trove archival holdings. Narratives of criminality attended the larrikin along with associations of over consumption by ‘the larrikin’ of popular and cultural entertainments. This suggests a particular historical convergence of ideas around criminality with aesthetics and popular culture. Melissa cites evidence of the over policing of youth culture and the moral panic about ‘youth out of control’. Melissa’s approach to this study as one that insists on ‘thinking about history from below’ offers an important methodological view and metaphor, one that considers the hidden hierarchies of research practices associated with archives and challenges presumptions about the top-down formations and interpretations of knowledge.

Nerida Campbell’s presentation, ‘Dark Inspiration: the NSW Police forensic photography archive’, traces the many uses of this collection for ‘student, scholars, artists, musicians, writers and fashion designers from around the world’. What occurs to me as I listen to both Melissa and Nerida is that there is great scope to re-engage with the ‘performative’ aspects of the official documentation. Not only does police photography of criminal figures, their postures and clothing, give an invaluable insight into Australian cultural life during the early twentieth Century, it provides a point of departure for artistic and theatrical reinterpretations of the ‘real document’. Divisions of class, as well as the gendered aspects of “performing” the mug shot, might be deciphered in these materials.The aesthetics of performing ‘criminality’, its applications in the fashion world for instance, including its influence on the proliferation of late-twentieth and 21st Century street styles, present some of the possibilities of interpreting historical photography from an artistic perspective.

The forensic photography archive is made up of over 130,000 negatives taken by NSW Police investigators’ and Nerida showed us the kinds of artistic projects borne out of an engagement with the archival images. San Francisco artist Michael Jason Enriquez created his photographic project titled, Mugshot Doppelganger, using the police photography as a starting point. In this 2012 project, Michael superimposes the faces of famous Hollywood celebrities onto the faces of the N.S.W based criminals photographed in the early twentieth Century Australia producing an uncanny and anachronistic effect. http://mugshotdoppelganger.tumblr.com/ See also the innovative work of Sydney based organisation, Penguin Plays Rough. In 2013 the company used the photography housed in the Justice and Police Museum as a point of departure for the staging of an event at the museum. Penguin Plays Rough stage events around the objective of establishing creative engagements with what they call ‘imaginatively wild literature’. http://penguinplaysrough.com/2013/09/18/1056/

Antonina Lewis draws on the Greek etymology of the meaning of ‘archive’ highlighting the co-implication of the concept with the hierarchical model of knowledge established in the Western legal tradition. Antonina states that it is no coincidence that juridical terminology such as ‘sentencing’ should find its way into the formations of the archive, or archon (Gk). Her proposition being that legislation continues to shape the future direction of archives and the governance of data, data collection and retention, into the current day. Privilege, power and restriction establish the importance of the archival mechanism, however Antonina reflects how the processes of archiving and the conceptual ‘site’ of archival knowledge might be potentially ‘reconstituted as a site of emancipation’. Overall, the presentations reflected the idea that in the 21st Century we have moved beyond the definition and representation of the archive that abides by its original etymology and Athenian, legal logic. The idea of the archive as performing the function of a ‘living document’ is perhaps informed by the type of re-thinking around archival work that has been taking place across a number of fields and disciplines, and is identified as participating in the ‘new archival turn’. The speakers each elaborated on questions such as: How do archives perform as depositories of official knowledge; how might we expand on the idea of the archive to include marginal stories and identities, sites of unofficial culture and consideration of popular forms?

Angela Ndalianis describes ‘the popular memory’ archive in her research about locally written video games of 1980s Australia and New Zealand. The possibility offered by the community-generated archive establishes a democratised structure for the collection and housing of data. The body of knowledge becomes reinscribed in the form of a ‘demotic archive’, established by the collections of a living fan culture. The typically disavowed ‘body’ of the collector must necessarily come into focus in the games archive, as it must consider the embodied experiences of the game-player so central to its production. Angela states that ‘games are dead unless you can play them’; therefore an accounting of the embodied game player becomes key in assessing the usability, operability and significance of such an archive. Many of these games are out of copyright and for this reason it is easier to manage archival knowledge gleaned from a collective memory, without the strictures of copyright law and other bureaucratic limitations. The definition of the archive as an official space of containment and data management gives way to the concept of the archive as a demotic form of popular and collective memory, but also a space for proliferation and bottom-up aesthetic, historical transmission of cultural production.

Katrina Dean and Janine Barrand map the movements from a body of knowledge that initially begins as a personal collection and then requires transformation as it takes public form. In the case of the Germaine Greer archive, Katrina traced the difficulties of moving from ‘a personal regime’, i.e., the notes, diaries, drafts, photographs, and random personal effects, incidentally collected by Greer, to a public archival ‘regime’ that implicitly demands linearity and regimentality. Janine Barrand’s work curating the 2007 Arts Centre exhibition on Nick Cave’s career highlighted the very personal and nuanced work demanded of the archivist as mediator, collaborator, and witness to the artistic process of a living artist.

Professor Julie McLeod offered useful conceptual framing for approaching the key themes of the symposium. She interrogated the politics of knowledge associated with the archive by asking, what do we mean when we invoke the archive, its multiple and hegemonic function as truth, authority, partiality, and how does the archive enact a public pedagogy? Julie’s address prompted a consideration of the ways in which working in the archive implies materiality; the dustiness of the documents and the embodied gestures, often taken for granted when moving through the archive. Julie’s address prompted a deeper thinking around the ‘gaps’ in archival bodies of knowledge in which things, events, embodied entities, are inevitable left out, forgotten, or compressed. The speakers presented a picture of the Australian Humanities as a pedagogical and sometimes anachronistic site, which intuitively calls for a rethinking of what archival practices, outcomes, might achieve in 21st Century Australia.

The speakers reflected the embodied imagining that informs the labour of archival exploration, its transformation into curricula for education at all levels, as well as the cultural production performed across literary, historical and performative genres; all contributing to an expansion as well as interrogation of the kinds of public imaginaries that proliferate freely, are at stake, and inevitably furnish cultural life in contemporary Australia. Themes included the recovery of potentially lost bodies of knowledge, forgotten urban landscapes and the lives lived within them. For example Dr. Stefan Schutt recovered a pile of what appeared to be industrial detritus from a demolished building site, only to learn that the ‘garbage’ contained design proofs for commercial signage contracts, which in turn inadvertently tell the story of lost urban sites, milk bars, shops, preferred brands of tea and more broadly ways of living in historical Melbourne.

There was a chronicling of minoritarian identities, such as Jan Molloy presenting on the Immigration Museum’s newest permanent exhibition, ‘Identity: yours, mine, ours’. The exhibition explores ‘who we are, who others think we are, and what it means to belong and not belong’. The mapping of hidden or lost architectures and landscapes as well as reflection on methodologies of archival practice was discussed during the day. Christine Healey presented on the implementation of Inquiry based learning in the museum, in the form of VTS or Visual Thinking Strategies. Christine explains that VTS was developed ‘during the 1980s by cognitive psychologist Abigail Housen and veteran museum educator Philip Yenawine at the Museum of Modern Art, New York’. What struck me in Christine’s description of VTS was again the principle of a bottom-up, or horizontal, engagement with history, in which the student’s reading of the ‘image’ becomes an act of authorial interpretation; one that supplements the canonical historical account, rather than being supplanted by it.

The strategy of queering the archive was explored in the work done in The Australian Lesbian and Gay Archive by Nick Henderson and Daniel Marshall. However the act of queering as methodology might extend beyond the specific intersection of knowledge and sexuality to include more broadly an archival strategy that engages specifically with the gaps in official reportage, documentation, and witness; gaps that fall between, or ghost the official accounts of history often taken for granted. This strategy of employing a performative queering of the archon, was reflected in the engagement with the documented faces and identities of criminals found in the N.S.W Police and forensic archive; the lost urban landmarks and commercial signs that have in the past inscribed a history to a ‘place’; ghost signs that are periodically demolished, or do not conform to dominant aesthetic evaluations of what objects, persons, and cultural materials contain ‘prestige’ or official appeal. The scope and reach of this methodology, which seeks an active engagement with the gaps and dark spots in official cultural narrative reappraises the voices and faces of the criminalised and the marginal, their gestures, stories, clothing. The queering maps the stories of women and migrants, the lesbian and gay lives documented in photos and political ephemera as well as sites that document the minor theatres and venues of artistic production that are not evaluated as culturally significant, by dominant cultural institutions and arts funding bodies.

Caroline Wake presented a ‘premature’ report about her work in the Performance Space Archive. For Caroline this work is an act of remembrance for an under documented and under-theorised tradition in Australian Live Art, which has the potential to map to ‘global debates about the changing relationship between theatre, performance and live art’. Jenny Fewster’s (AusStage) metaphor of ‘catching lightening in a bucket’ providing a salient motif for describing the capture of ephemeral acts and objects whether they be theatrical or performative in the broader sense. The metaphor evokes the potentially difficult if not impossible relationship between ephemeral practices such as live performance and theatre, with their technologies of capture – the archive – that seek to contain them. Jenny describes AusStage as a unique data set about live performance in Australia, a site that represents the ability for researchers to glean and map the kind of verifiable networks concerning all aspects of performance, which then contributes to the production of ‘in-depth analysis and visualisations that reveal hidden patterns’ about live performance practice in Australia. Kerry Kilner similarly positions the AustLit database as being ‘unique on the world stage’ in its capacity to trace the ‘art of story in Australia’.

Is there scope for a horizontal discussion across bodies of knowledge housed in seemingly unrelated archives, which might perform the unexpected and expansive labour of ‘filling in the gaps’ for education and cultural activity more broadly? How might the work of figuring ‘Australia’, its historically shadowed position in relation to global debates around performance and literature, be done across the archive? How do we imagine those negotiations and connections happening? How might seemingly unrelated or incongruent bodies of knowledge, cultural materials, stories, and archival resources speak to each other? I’d like to employ Nerida Campbell’s experience of the archive as ‘dark inspiration’ as away of extending the methodological scope of investigating the gaps; the hidden, inexplicable, antipodean, and forgotten traces of history coded in the document; whether that be a photograph, a commercial sign, a piece of jewellery, suicide letter, lyrics, an outmoded piece of technology.

Megan Perry (State Library of N.S.W) emphasises the important role of the mobility of archives and their key resources and objects. She contends that the mobility of histories and artefacts ‘also speaks to risk, responsibility and reward…’ Curators, education officers, artists, and archivists from organisations such as ACMI, Auststage, Austlit, Australian Lesbian and Gay archives, Performance Space Archive, The Immigration Museum, The Germaine Greer archive and more, contributed to the fleshing out of the conceptual terrain around archival practices; the significance of these practices in the broadening of selection, uptake, and access of materials; the understanding of the intellectual and historical impact of losing touch with these official and unofficial sites of cultural memory, and the affective production they yield in the imaginings and ways of living in contemporary Australian life. We hope to keep this discussion going throughout 2015.


The Australian Centre blog will chronicle the activities of the Centre by inviting its researchers and guests to reflect on Australian culture, arts, society, and politics. It will include theatre reviews, news about Australian poetry events, political commentary, exhibition openings and thoughts on Australian film. The blog endeavours to host the voices of multiple contributors representing a range of perspectives. In this way, we hope to emphasise the ways in which research interests, reflections, and critiques of Australian culture, arts, society, and politics intersect with lived experience in a contemporary Australian context